12155264433_5dde9733a4_cThe Epic of Gilgamesh is one of mankind’s earliest surviving pieces of literature, and one of our earliest attempts as a species to identify what makes a human being great. 4000 years later and it seems we’re still trying to figure it out. While we’ve come a long way since the days of heroes and god-kings, it seems we still value many of the same traits in our present leaders as were evident in the leaders of the past.

So how do we translate that into today’s world of electronics and social media, where being a leader and having followers is seemingly as easy as creating a Twitter account and voicing your opinions? Simply skimming a list of the U.S.’s top business leaders is telling. Warren Buffet, for example, is the definition of a “self-made man” to many, and, over the course of his lifetime, has given away close to half of his current net worth. Not only do people view him as hard-working, the type to inspire you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but they also admire actions that indicate traits of selflessness and generosity.

You see, leaders don’t just gain followers–they earn them. It might not seem that way at first, especially when so many people seemingly “unworthy” of followers have them, but even those toxic leaders eventually lose their credibility, and in turn, their following.

A Good Follower, a Beginner’s Mind

There’s an old saying that goes “you can’t truly understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”. This holds especially true for all true leaders, who were at some point followers themselves–and in many cases still are. Fast Company published an article listing five qualities that make followers natural leaders as well. These qualities include awareness, diplomacy, courage, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Another way to put it would be to call upon the teachings of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by late Zen philosopher Shunryu Suzuki. He argues that all true masters will keep a clear mind, unfettered by ego and the distraction of past success. Only by keeping a beginner’s mind will you ensure that you consider every possibility, backed up by the wisdom and experience of a master with an open mind. Simply put: never stop learning, and never think yourself too big to follow others.

Be Innovative, Be Dependable


Steve Jobs is an iconic (if not cliche) name to bring up when talking about great American business leaders–but there’s a reason for it. He’s the epitome of somebody who inspired and earned his customers and his following, even if he wasn’t necessarily the nicest person on the planet. What Jobs aimed to be was innovative and dependable. He always pushed for the best, but never cut corners, avoiding the fates of companies such as Trinity Industries who lost $663 million in a fraud suit in 2015–not to mention put lives at risk.

What business leaders and social media moguls alike need to remember is that followers and customers want you to be their thought leader. They want you to be on the forefront and at the cutting edge of your industry, even if that means you’re simply keeping up with current events. However, they want you to be a dependable thought leader, the type that doesn’t jump to conclusions, skimp on essentials, and who operates with integrity. In terms of social media followings, this means you shouldn’t create or retweet mindless click-bait or flimsy content, and should always put your audience and customers before yourself. Even Steve Jobs was known to give the rare apology letter, proving that you could depend on him even to say “sorry” if that’s what’s needed.

Tell a Story, Control the Narrative

Forbes ran a great story about why leaders should tell stories, citing social sciences to point out the two different ways that human beings interpret messages. The paradigmatic mode of cognition is how we’d normally “think of” thinking, that is: data goes in, the mind analyzes the data rationally, and then makes a decision. The narrative mode of cognition, on the other hand, refers to the input of data, the mind analyzing the data emotionally, and then a decision being made based on that analysis.

When you embrace arguing pure data without a narrative, you’re basically “pushing” your message on to people. Great leaders, on the other hand, will “pull” their followers in by their heart strings, appealing to their emotions and their very core as a human being. Even healthcare officials and policymakers have begun to lead by storytelling, recognizing that even if a message is great, nobody will listen to it if they feel no connection to it, or it’s boring. Don’t be boring, and always, always, always pull your followers in instead of trying to push them one way or another.

Be the Best Thing You Can Be: Yourself

Last, but definitely not least, be yourself. There’s nothing worse than an imposter who claims they are someone or can do something they both aren’t and can’t. Sure, you might have to tweak your presentation a bit, but the essence at your core that makes you you is what people want to connect with. That’s what people want to follow–you just have to make sure they see it.

All Photos via Flickr